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Global Pact Would Ban Cigarette Ads

Final OK by the World Health Assembly may come as early as today. The U.S. will review terms to see whether it is constitutional.

May 21, 2003|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

An international panel Tuesday endorsed a global anti-tobacco treaty that calls for a ban on cigarette advertising, in a move supporters called a watershed in combating the largest cause of disease and death.

With delegates from more than 40 nations voicing support and only one speaking against the treaty, final approval by the World Health Assembly in Geneva is expected as early as today.

The treaty, sponsored by the World Health Organization and negotiated by more than 170 nations, is meant to reduce the rising toll from lung cancer, heart disease and other smoking-related ailments. The WHO estimates that smoking causes more than 4 million premature deaths a year -- a toll it projects will reach 10 million by 2030 if current trends persist.

Treaty advocates had feared that resistance by the United States and two other top cigarette producers -- Germany and Japan -- would interfere with passage. But in recent days their objections melted away. On Tuesday, according to observers, the delegate from the Dominican Republic was the only dissenter, citing potential harm to the nation's economy.

"We're celebrating," said Judith Wilkenfeld, director of international programs for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, one of more than 170 groups from 70 countries that lobbied for the pact. She called it a victory for "all of the countries of the world who've taken on the fight against Big Tobacco and who have said they'll put public health ahead of the profits of the industry."

Observers said the treaty's benefits might be greatest in developing nations where smoking rates have remained low because of limited purchasing power but could increase as a result of economic growth and the sophisticated marketing at which the big tobacco companies excel.

But during four years of negotiating, the treaty was diluted by compromises as delegates sought to appease leading tobacco nations. For this and other reasons, it could take years to gauge its actual effect.

The treaty won't be binding until ratified by at least 40 countries -- a process that could take at least a year. In many nations, this will require the signature of the president or prime minister and legislative approval.

Moreover, some provisions -- on taxation, health education and secondhand smoke -- are couched more as goals than ironclad mandates.

Others, such as a planned crackdown on smuggling, are to be fleshed out in later protocols.

Among the most concrete provisions is a requirement that countries mandate warning labels that cover at least 30% of each cigarette pack.

The treaty also requires signatories to eliminate all cigarette advertising and promotional activities within five years. But even here there is wiggle room, in language permitting each country to act "in accordance with its constitution." The language was inserted in part to satisfy U.S. concerns that a total ad ban would be unconstitutional.

After weeks of anxiety, treaty advocates were delighted Sunday when Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, attending as head of the U.S. delegation, announced that he would not oppose adoption of the treaty.

But it is unclear whether President Bush would sign and send the treaty to the Senate, which has a track record of rejecting multilateral agreements.

A White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "We're going to carefully review ... final treaty language ... to see if it can be implemented consistent with our Constitution and domestic system."

Tom Novotny, a visiting professor of epidemiology at UC San Francisco, described the treaty as "better than nothing" but said its effectiveness might depend on whether the United States provides funds to help poor countries implement it.

Novotny, a former deputy assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, served as lead U.S. negotiator on the treaty but resigned in protest in May 2001, when he said he was ordered by the Bush administration to back off pro-health positions. As a tobacco bastion and once-aggressive promoter of cigarette exports, the United States has a special obligation to developing countries, Novotny said.

Martin Feldman, a tobacco analyst with Merrill Lynch, said the treaty could have an effect with or without the United States by putting pressure on governments to pass tobacco legislation.

"The combination of educating society and making cigarettes less enticing will likely reduce incidence" of smoking, Feldman said.

Alone among top cigarette makers, Altria Group Inc., parent of Philip Morris International and Philip Morris USA, endorsed the treaty in principle, while quarreling with some provisions.

Mark Berlind, Altria's associate general counsel, said the company supported the treaty because "the public wants it and expects it" and because the tobacco firms "need clear rules to follow that will be enforced against all manufacturers."

Philip Morris is the largest cigarette producer in the United States. The company's rivals say ad bans and other restrictions tend to benefit the company by preserving its market dominance.

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